Friday, September 28, 2007

How Un-heroic Can One Be?

My very dear friend and chapter mate, Lisa, loaned me a book the other day which I just finished reading. It's an older Susan Elizabeth Phillips book - Nobody's Baby But Mine. (Hey, Karen, I think I'd classify this as a secret baby book!). I started reading it, laughed at how stupid the premise was, but like a train wreck waiting to happen, I couldn't look away if my life depended on it.

The premise is this: 34 yr old geeky physics professor with a 180 IQ is at a crossroads in her life. Her one and only lover dropped her for a 24 yr old assistant. She knows she's no big prize, that she's stuffy and married to her career, but her biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby, but not just any baby. She wants a normal IQ baby who won't be a social outcast. None of her male friends are father options because they're all brainiacs as well. Enter a flighty next door groupie neighbor who wants to borrow coffee one day and comes across the blubbering professor at one of her low points. Groupie-girl needs to find someone "classy" for her NFL football player friends to give the star quarterback as a birthday present. If she can come through with a classy "girl" they've agreed to hook her up with the backup QB who she wants to bang. Groupie-girl is desperate, takes one look and figures nerdy professor who wants a baby might just do the trick. Somehow she convinces nerdy professor to go along with this crazy scheme and seduce the big dumb NFL QB. Nerdy professor goes for it, figuring he's just a big dumb jock and she'll get what she wants, he'll get laid, no harm, no foul. He won't ever know she ended up pg.

As I was reading - and yes, it was like a train wreck - I was laughing so hard at how unheroic both of the main characters in this book are. The nerdy professor is a liar and a cheat and she goes and seduces this guy with the sole intention of getting pregnant and not telling him. But he's no prize either - the big dumb NFL QB goes along with it even though he can tell there's something odd about this girl right from the start. (He's not so stupid after all, though he is a guy and as such does stupid guy stuff, like falling for this whole thing.) They end up having very unromantic, un-hot sex, she runs off and that's that. Whatever. Except then they collide again because the first time she didn't actually get pg, so she goes back for seconds. And our hero falls for it again! Totally both unheroic characters right from the get-go, and even still I found myself reading and couldn't stop. These two characters were both so completely screwed up, I couldn't wait to figure out how they messed things up even more.

I LOVE unheroic characters. I think they have the best character growth over the course of a story. I had one contest judge tell me my thief hero was unheroic at the beginning and therefore unlikeable. After reading her comments I scratched my jaw and thought, "Huh. That was the point. He IS unheroic in the beginning of the book. He's SUPPOSED to be a louse then." What's the point of writing the perfect hero at the beginning? He's got nowhere to go at that point. When I look at the keeper books on my shelves, more often than not they involve one (or sometimes two) characters who do something so totally UN-heroic, you think there's no way they can redeem themselves. The fun in reading becomes watching them transform into the most heroic character you've ever read.

What about you? How do you feel about unheroic heroes & heroines? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Kinda in the middle? And do you ever write unheroic characters?


Paty Jager said...

I guess you can put me in the middle... It all depends on how the story is written whether or not I cotton up to an unheroic character. And true, if they are too good to be true in the beginning, what kind of growth will they have, though I have to say... my heroes all are not that bad in the beginning. A few flaws or misconceptions about themselves, but nothing so bad no one would like them. So I guess I like them to be good off the bat. But I'm not opposed to a bad boy who gets turned around by the right girl.

Okay that is all lame! I'm headin' out the door!

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli, interesting. I think because of my market, I write more typically heroic heroes. I remember this Elizabeth Lowell book, however, as it won a Rita (I think) several years ago and though I never read it, I was totally transfixed by the title. Nobody's Baby but Mine. Great title.

As I don't read romance (gasp) and do read mysteries, I often read imperfect characters. I like them. But I would have trouble with a heroic sympathetic character playing around with another character's life and well being and doing it purposely would add to my distaste. I mean we all screw up other people occasionally, it's the price of human relationship, but hopefully we don't do it willfully with malice aforethought. Since in this case, the HEROINE (not jut a character, but a character I'm supposed to empathize with) is messing not with just a supposedly dumb jock but also an innocent baby all for her own gratification, the premise of this book would not amuse me, it would irritate me. It might even infuriate me.

I like the idea of starting with damaged goods and working toward a better state of mind. But I like to see a moral center I can respect and identify with, however misguided, and thus there are caveats. I read a mystery a few years back with a serial killer as the main character, kind of Grosse Point without John Cussak. I bought into it as I bought into his take of what is moral. If there'd been a baby involved, however, I doubt I would have been able to.

Thanks for a thought provoking blog!

Karen Duvall said...

Eli, you're right! I hadn't thought about NBBM as a secret baby book, but it certainly is. Or at least starts out that way. And now, come to think of it, Phillips wrote another book kind of similar. The heroine, in a moment of weakness, jumps the bones of the QB while he's sleeping, he thinks he's dreaming (uh, yeah, right) and wakes up to find the heroine straddling him. She thought the condom she used was new, but it was old and it broke and, well, you can guess the rest.

I adore damaged, cynical, angry heroes and heroines who learn to channel their negative energies into something good and wonderful by the end of the story. The journey they take can be breathtaking! I love it! I can't read about goody-two-shoe characters unless they're the secondaries who help keep thing in balance.

NBBM is one of my favorite books for studying a well-executed character arc. I didn't get that the heroine was messing with the life of an innocent baby because SHE was so passionate about her child and sincerely felt she was doing the right thing, therefore I felt it, too. That's the power of good writing. So here's a case where it's possible for the reader who has strong feelings on an issue to be unable to perceive the story through the eyes of the characters, but only through her own. I've done that when it came to issues I felt strongly about, so Phillips took a huge risk in telling this story. And I so admire her for it.

Genene said...

Good question, Eli. And I probably would have said I don't like unheroic heroes, but in the instance of Nobody's Baby But Mine, I think I would have been totally sucked in by the [train wreck] humor before I realized how unheroic their actions were. (Not sure that makes any sense.)

To put it another way, I guess I "judge" humorous books differently than dramatic stories. With humor, I expect the situation to be absurd as that's where much of the humor comes in for me. However, with dramatic books, that absurdity just isn't funny. Not sure that makes sense either.

However, as Alice said, very thought-provoking blog!

Danita Cahill said...

I adore unheroic characters. Some of my favorites are those with mental illnesses. Don't ask me why, I just find those whacked-out folks entertaining. Maybe it was all those psychology courses in college?

"She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb, "Riding with the Queen" by Jennie Shortridge, or the movie with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson "As Good as it Gets". Fun stuff.
Fun blog too, Eli. Not that I'm calling you mentally ill...ha!

MaryF said...

I hate that book for the very reasons you list. There's a Jenny Crusie that I feel the same way about.

Yet at the same time, I have some unheroic heroes...huh.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, awesome comments.

I can see where you're coming from with your explanation of your thief hero. He may be a thief, but the way you've written him, we can see his qualities and know he'll redeem himself in the end. I love his character throughout the entire book. Just my 2cents.